The Reds pitching staff has been largely terrible in 2016. A whopping 31 pitchers (and Tyler Holt) took the mound for the club, allowing an MLB record 251 home runs (as of Tuesday night) and posting a collective 0.0 fWAR as a group, the third-worst mark in baseball history.
While the overall numbers make it look like a dumpster fire of a season, there are plenty of things to take away. As the regular season winds to a close, let’s take a look at some of the things we learned about the Reds pitchers.
Brandon Finnegan can hack it as a starter
As the only pitcher to start and finish the season in the rotation, it seems natural to start with Finnegan. In his first full season as a starter, the southpaw has tossed 172 innings and posted a 3.98 ERA. Yes, his walks are a concern — his 11.4 BB% trails only Francisco Liriano among 77 qualified starters — as are the number of home runs he allowed (1.52 per nine innings, the seventh-highest rate in baseball), but there are reasons to be optimistic.
Finnegan’s changeup has improved significantly, leading to an increase in strikeouts as the season has gone along. Before this development, it would’ve been fairly easy to write him off as a starter, as he was also among the worst starters in the league at striking hitters out (16.9 K%) through August. Accordingly, his ERA (4.68), FIP (5.72), and xFIP (5.18) were all pretty bad, too. But since the calendar turned to August, Finnegan has been much better, striking out 26.2 percent of the hitters he’s faced en route to a 2.47 ERA, 4.02 FIP, and 4.22 xFIP.
Given his late-season improvement, Finnegan seems like a lock to be in the rotation when the 2017 season begins. It’s entirely possible that his control problems will force him to the bullpen if other young pitchers are knocking down the door, but for now, he’s earned the spot he’s in.
Anthony DeSclafani showed top-of-the-rotation potential
It took more than two months for DeSclafani to finally take the mound in a big-league game. Despite this, he’ll end the season leading the Reds’ pitching staff in fWAR (1.9). Disco picked up right where he left off in 2015, posting a 3.38 ERA, 3.99 FIP, and 3.94 xFIP to this point while improving both his strikeout (21.1%) and walk rate (5.8%) from his rookie season. He is also the only Reds pitcher to toss a complete-game shutout this season.
While his strikeout numbers are merely league average for now, his walk rate is far better than that. Although his recent struggles have regressed his numbers a bit, his improved overall control has been the most encouraging aspect of his season. Only 26 of 133 pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched have walked a lower percentage of hitters.
There is certainly room for Disco to get better (pitching against left-handed hitters and allowing fewer home runs would be at the top of the list), but he is easily one of the team’s top two starting pitchers alongside Homer Bailey. If DeSclafani can stay healthy throughout 2017, it’s reasonable to expect him to get even better and continue emerging as a legitimate No. 1 or 2 starter.
Dan Straily has carved out a future in Cincinnati
The Reds really couldn’t have expected much more from Straily after claiming him off waivers just before the season started. Initially regarded as a bullpen piece, he has wound up second on the team in starts (30) and first in innings pitched (185.1), becoming the workhorse “innings eater” that Alfredo Simon (who is still, unfathomably, employed by the organization) was originally supposed to be.
Sure, the peripheral numbers suggest Straily hasn’t been quite as good as his 3.74 ERA would indicate, but it’s hard to be displeased with the performance he’s given the club. While he may get pushed out of the rotation by more talented pitchers at some point, the 27-year-old has certainly earned his spot for the foreseeable future. If he doesn’t stick in the rotation, he could prove to be a valuable reliever and spot starter capable of throwing 100+ innings per season. Not too bad for a waiver-wire claim.
The young guns aren’t quite ready
Everyone came into the season excited to see some of the organization’s top young pitching prospects finally get their first taste of the big leagues. Highly touted hurlers Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed both made their big-league debuts, but didn’t have quite the results they, or Reds fans, hoped for.
Stephenson, as has been the case throughout his career, hasn’t been able to find the plate far too often. He’s walking 9.3 percent of the hitters he’s faced while striking out just 18 percent. Throw in more than two home runs per nine innings and you’ve got a 6.27 ERA, 6.68 FIP, and 5.37 xFIP. While he has certainly shown flashes of his potential and clearly has outstanding raw staff (his fastball, curveball, and changeup could all be plus pitches), the former first-round draft pick has a long way to go if he’s ever going to fulfill the expectations many had for him. Unless he blows everyone away in spring training, Triple-A seems like his likely destination to begin 2017.
Reed had just as tough a time in his 10 starts, with a 7.36 ERA, 6.05 FIP, and 4.29 xFIP. As Nick Carrington pointed out, his fastball got absolutely crushed — quite possibly due to a long delivery and low arm angle — as he allowed 10 home runs on the pitch. Control was also an issue (8.3 BB%) for the left-hander at times and he also didn’t strike out many batters (18.3 K%). Still, there’s not as much reason to be concerned with him as there is with Stephenson and his wildness. At the very least, Reed had a good season in the minors, while Stephenson did not. Reed should have a decent shot at making the back end of the Opening Day rotation next year if he can make some adjustments.
There are a long line of pitchers who have struggled in their first taste of the major leagues and have gone on to become successful. That doesn’t guarantee Stephenson and Reed will join that group, but it does provide some reassurance that their initial performance isn’t necessarily what we’ll see in the future.
The bullpen is still a giant question mark
The worst, most unwatchable aspect of the Reds was easily the bullpen. Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen brought some stability to the group, but there weren’t many other standouts. If those two don’t end up starting, they’re the only locks to be back next year as the relief corps could be in for another overhaul.
Blake Wood (3.95 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 3.88 xFIP) has a decent case for a spot next year should the team choose to re-sign him. His high strikeout (24.1%) and ground-ball (53.3%) rates are the pros, while the unsightly walk rate (11.4%) is the overwhelming con.
Though he’s been largely terrible this season, Tony Cingrani also figures to be back. His numbers have gotten worse every year (shoulder troubles haven’t helped his cause) and his 3.8 K-BB% ranks ranks 309th out of 318 pitchers with 50 or more innings. But he’s only 27 and probably won’t cost much in arbitration. If (and that’s a big if) he can regain his previous form, he could still end up being a pretty good reliever, so it wouldn’t be surprising for the Reds to hold on to him.
Aside from that, it’s anybody’s guess as to what the ‘pen will look like next season. None of the call-ups throughout the season have been particularly impressive and most will be getting DFA’d as the Reds clear space on the 40-man roster. Simon, Ross Ohlendorf, and J.J. Hoover will also be out of the picture, in all likelihood.
While young starting pitching prospects like Stephenson, Reed, and others could end up in the bullpen eventually, it’s hard to see the Reds putting them there instead of sending them to the minors if they don’t make the rotation to begin 2017.
Whether the Reds bring in outside help, turn to current minor leaguers like Zack Weiss (who missed all of 2016), or throw together a hodgepodge of pitchers like Caleb Cotham, Josh Smith, Keyvius Sampson, and Jumbo Diaz, it’ll be interesting to see what the group looks like. But whatever happens, the bullpen won’t be as bad as it was in April and May of this year, right? Right? Hello?